User:Woozle/2008-07-16 response to Jon Pieret

From Issuepedia

Intro

This is part of a long debate we've been having in the comments of this blog entry in En Tequila. I had already typed it when Jon posted a reply which I think gets us closer to resolving something -- so I'm saving this here (which also gives me a bit more formatting power) but only responding there to the shorter comment. (JP and others can feel free to insert indented comments here, or post on the discussion page, or ignore it for lack of time... whatever works, and I'm quite sympathetic to the "time" plea. I've only spent so much time on this so far because I think it's really important, and I presume the same applies for JP.)

I have to say, though -- JP is making me think, damn him! My right as an American to be brainless and oblivious is being stepped on, and this offends me and hurts my feelings! (That was a joke. No death threats from overzealous patriots, please. Thank you.) --Woozle 19:19, 16 July 2008 (EDT)

The Response

(Boldfacing is more to show where the key points are, rather than for emotional emphasis; my apologies if it reads like I'm shouting.)

  • JP said: "Laws don't spring out of nowhere, they are derived from existing social relationships and concepts. The pharmaceutical example was merely an illustration of the relationship -- an analogy."

Oh. I thought we were trying to establish whether or not there was any legal justification for action against Mr. Cook or PZ.

The specific sub-point was the issue of whether a consecrated wafer can truly be considered "valuable". I argued that if it really was valuable, they shouldn't be giving it away but rather guarding it carefully. You counter-argued that this is not true for life-saving drugs. I pointed out that these drugs are not given away for free but bought and paid for -- the drug is effectively owned by the recipient.

You could have counter-argued at this point (but didn't) that sometimes such drugs are given away for free, e.g. when fighting a plague in a third-world country; I might then argue that this still does not imply an obligation to consume, but that would be missing the point and might even be wrong -- these drugs are often quite expensive, and wasting a dose may mean failing to save a life, so there may actually (and legitimately) be some kind of penalty for obtaining a dose under false pretenses (the assumption that you're going to take it). In this case, the penalty would be based on two things: (1) the very reasonable idea that you may have cost someone else their life, and (2) the cost of making a dose of the drug. What is the basis of such a penalty for falsely obtaining a communion wafer?

"Aha!" you might then say to yourself, believing that you now have the Woozle firmly caught in your Clever Heffalump Trap. "A Catholic believes that her/his eternal soul is in jeopardy unless s/he receives that dose of life-giving Body of Jesus!" Or some such. (If that's not it, then please correct me; my resident ex-Catholic says she is quite unable to see it as anything other than mildly disrespectful, and certainly nothing compared to the abuses committed by the Catholic clergy -- as has been mentioned by commenters elsewhere.)

Perhaps they do believe that, yes -- but I'm not going to let anyone use the mechanisms of my civilization to enforce an imaginary belief. If they want their beliefs enforced outside of the church community, they'll at least need to demonstrate evidence of non-imaginary harm in the absence of such enforcement.

You could also have counter-argued (but didn't) that the doctor may give a patient a drug (not to mention the service of investigating the patient's illness) before the patient has actually paid, and therefore there is an unspoken social agreement in effect here too (well, usually unspoken; some places do have signs saying "payment is expected before leaving the building" or equivalent). If a patient walks out without paying, however, that is equivalent to theft, because there was to have been an exchange of goods -- money for goods and services rendered. Where is the exchange in a communion? What is the service whose delivery has been denied when the cracker recipient fails to eat it?

What you did counter-argue seemed to have missed my point, i.e. you seemed to think I was claiming that nothing had value unless it was sold... or something like that... "So now you are an ultra-capitalist and nothing has any value if there is no market for it? How much can you get for, say, your 5 year old daughter's drawing?"

I think you were assuming that I was saying "no, the value of the medicine comes from the fact that there's a market for it; wafers have no market value, so therefore are not valuable" -- but no, I hope it's clear now that this was not my point at all.

  • JP said "If you can't get the analogy to the notebooks, Dana's pictures, your child's drawing, and the like, I do not see how you'll ever understand. But the point is, in a civilized society, it doesn't matter if you understand."

You raised each of those points, and I showed how they are inapplicable to the real question of "desecrating" a ritually-blessed but mass-produced cracker.

And it does matter if I understand it -- because unless I am brought to an understanding of it, I will continue to defend PZ's threatened actions, and so will many others.

Would you have us give in just on your say-so? Just as my will does not rule, neither does yours. We need to work out where the boundaries should lie (this was the point of my previous post-and-a-half), because not everyone agrees that they lie where you seem to think they do -- and, furthermore, your boundaries on this issue (as I understand them) seem to treat the biscuit as a special case due to the Catholic-rule-based perception of theft.

For instance: by what criterion do you distinguish between (A) the Cc's being offended by claimed abuse of a claimed sacred object, as in PZ's threats (B) a creationist being "offended" by the fact that their beliefs are "belittled" and "marginalized" by the American educational system? If "theft" is the distinction, why does that outweigh any other distinction such as the ever-popular criterion of falsifiability? How do we decide when something is really theft rather than one side making up a bunch of bizarro rules to make a perfectly reasonable act (e.g. saving a cracker for later) seem like theft? What's to stop them from making up further imagined offenses and calling them theft, e.g. describing criticism of the Bible as "stealing Our Lord's words", or evolution as "stealing morality from our children"? I think I've even heard sex education referred to as "stealing our children's innocence". We can't let the distinction hang on the interpretation of a single word.

(Note: further down, I concede that the cracker removal might legally be seen as theft -- but that the rules detailing and enforcing this view have not been discussed and clarified. As I see it, no law which has not been through such a process can be considered legitimate. That vagueness is at the core of this entire dispute.)

  • JP says, re how harming the biscuit actually hurts someone: "It's their God -- in the bread -- and their holiest sacrament."

Either (a) you believe that what Catholics believe about this is true, in which case you'll need to back that up with evidence, or (b) you know it's imaginary, in which case you know that in reality, we have in the case of PZ's threat an action that risks destroying or wasting a number of 1.2 cent biscuits (which I suspect he and/or others would be perfectly happy to pay for, in order to keep the act purely symbolic) and possibly causing a number of people to feel hurt due to some offense to their "sacred" imaginary beings.

PZ's threat forces the question of what constitutes the offense: is there any evidence that the being in question is actually being harmed or offended by a cracker being stomped on (or whatever PZ was going to do)? Does this being actually exist, or is it just a character from a set of emotionally potent tales and myths which someone back in the dark ages decided everyone should take seriously -- for reasons having at best a distant, convoluted relationship with the idea of "truth"?

(Note that I am applying the same standards of argument as I have applied to your "Darwin's notebooks" example: I can explain exactly why defacing them would be an outrageous thing to do, six ways from Sunday, based on objectively observable facts. I haven't even gotten into the fact that nobody has offered Darwin's notebooks to Ken Hovind for a fiber-filled snack, presumably as part of some scientific ceremony.)

If, on the other hand, PZ backs down (or is forced to back down), the believers in question will be reassured by observing that their beliefs actually have some force and presence in the real world. "God acted, and the eville atheist Darwinist has been struck down for his sins." Their separation from reality will therefore be strengthened, and their belief that they can stop anything they don't like by being correspondingly "offended" or "hurt" by it will be reinforced.

Will it then be "offensive" to them if we, say, comment negatively on Scripture? Will removing Gideon Bibles from hotel rooms become a federal crime? I don't see where your line is drawn that would prevent these things.

This is especially important to keep in mind with regard to people like Bill Donohue and other powermongers within the Catholic community, who are well aware of the results of these tactics, are not at all afraid to use them, and really aren't interested in seeking the truth, aiding sanity against insanity, or improving society.

How many people not in the Catholic hierarchy or related power-groups (such as The Catholic League) were truly "offended" or "hurt" by Mr. Cook's actions and PZ's threats? I'd place a small bet that you can't find even one. (And I'd be happy to pay up if I lost, because I'd really like to talk to that person.)

  • JP said: "I've already said -- long before you -- that death threats are inappropriate and criminal. Throwing that at me as if I haven't is insulting." Ok, mea culpa, I'll admit to having only recently discovered your letter in support of PZ, for which I thank you.

However, I was saying this in response to your comment "You agreed that destroying Darwin's notebooks to make a point would be emotionally hurtful to you."

By this, you seemed to be arguing that my "hurt" at that hypothetical action justified Catholic "hurt" at Mr. Cook's and PZ's actions.

I was trying to explain the difference between the two types of hurt. Mine is reasonable, willing to explain / discuss, non-retributional. Theirs is unreasonable, unquestionable, and vengeful.

So -- if I'm reading you right -- you agree that the Catholic response has been irrational and uncalled-for, but you also believe that PZ's threat is provocative and uncalled-for. Have I got this much right?

  • JP said "As for their calling it a "hate crime," don't they have freedom of speech? Even if they're wrong, they have the freedom to say it. Has the person who it a hate crime originally -- a spokesperson for the dioceses -- or the dioceses itself done any more than exercising free speech?"

Did I say, anywhere, that they shouldn't be allowed to say this?

What I said, I believe, was that by saying this they have given up the last shred of moral authority they might have had as regards "the sanctity of human life".

  • JP said: "He should leave the notebooks alone and you should leave the crackers alone."

This only makes any sense if the crackers belong to the church and not to the recipient -- a claim you do address later in your response, so I'll respond there.

Another analogy which may help explain how I see the ritual giving away of "sacred relics" for eating and then getting upset if someone does something else with them:

Your toes may be sensitive to being stepped on, and I should respect that because I don't want to hurt you. If you keep sticking your toes out where I'm likely to trip on them, however, you can hardly complain if someone says "Look, you guys keep sticking your toes out in the sidewalk. We're a little bit tired of tripping over them all the time and accidentally hurting you, but you've refused to move them... so we just thought we'd let you know that we are going to be holding a clogging, tapdancing, and contra-dancing ceremony shortly on this same sidewalk, and you might want to think about relocating your feet."

JP said: "I knew it was going to descend into a "they started it" whine. Howls of outrage are allowed -- look at the atheists -- glass houses and all that -- it's actions that are constrained in a civilized society." Is it "they started it" if your kids start fighting and you have to take away their toys?

If it is, then how do you propose to stop them from doing this again, ever? What tool do we have by which to enforce reason over superstition?

JP said, in response to my saying we weren't threatening anyone's property: "Except their crackers."

You're assuming you've won the point about whose property the cracker is; you haven't.

If I take a wad of napkins home from a restaurant and publicly burn it, am I guilty of an offense against all restaurantdom? No. Might I be banned from that restaurant? Possibly. Are there sharp-eyed watchers making sure I don't take extra napkins home? Who knows; I've never been treated like a bad dog for wanting to (e.g.) draw a diagram on a napkin before using it to wipe my face, so I've never felt tempted to take the issue further.

JP says: "So, only you and people whose views you agree with get freedom of speech? Writing to PZ's university is completely within their freedom of expression."

Once again you're accusing me of suppression of speech. I never said they couldn't say all the stupid, vile things they said; I just said it was stupid and vile to say them.

JP said, in regard to the issue of cracker ownership: "No, I've given you the law on the subject."

Not exactly. The comment (#97) to which you link does offer some basis for a legal position that the recipient has been given the wafer under an implicit contract to eat the wafer before returning to her/his seat.

It seems a bit flimsy to me, but for the sake of argument I'm willing to stipulate that there is such an implicit agreement. (I agreed earlier that there is an implied social obligation, but wasn't so sure that this could be enforced legally.)

It also sounds kind of the "pageant" metaphor, which you rejected... or any of the newer "restaurant" metaphors (taking home my buffet leftovers, a wad of napkins, or extra plastic utensils).

I believe I've addressed the possibility that the law might actually view this as a crime of some sort, but I can't find it right now so I'll repeat what I thought I said:

My understanding is that the punishment is generally proportional to the damage to the victim. What is the damage here? You have a 1.2-cent biscuit removed. If you want, you can include the labor involved in consecration -- we'll need to know how much the priest made and what portion of his paid time it took to make the wafer.

You said in an earlier comment "Taking a eucharist under the false pretense that you are a believer and then using it contrary to the conditions under which you received it is misappropriation of the property of others (i.e. theft), just as bootlegging a movie is, even if you got entry to it legally. (And, if you are wondering, the property taken does not have to have monetary value in order for the taking to constitute a crime.)", which I presume is applicable here.

This makes me very leery. If you aren't basing the crime's severity on the monetary value of the item misappropriated, what are you basing it on?

I'm also a bit confused as to whether you consider this a "contract"; on the one hand, you said "As for the rest, I didn't offer any "contractual obligation" basis for the kid violating secular law., but then again in your Evolving Thoughts comment, you said "Accepting the property with knowledge of the conditions is an implied contract or a quasi-contract. The conditions of the quasi-contract themselves can be implied."

Am I taking either of these out of context somehow?

And while we're on that subject... JP said: "I don't ever remember signing a written contract with the library to return books or seeing any signs that explicitly state "these books must be returned." However, the condition is implied in the very nature of a library..." It's also clear, when you're checking out, that you are accepting something on loan; there's usually mention of a return date, for instance, with a fine if you miss it, etc. By checking out the book, you agree to a specific set of terms -- whose broad outlines are known to you and whose full details are available, should you want to see them -- even if you don't actually sign anything.

In the case of the cracker, what are the terms? Are people allowed to take the cracker back to their seat before eating it? (Anecdotal reports suggest that this is quite common, even among non-heretical believers, but it was a violation of that specific term which started this whole incident.) How long is it permissible to hold the cracker before eating it? What are the penalties for failure to meet these conditions, and where are they spelled out?

If a law is open to too much interpretation, it is also open to abuse by the interpreters -- which is what happened in the case of Mr. Cook. I see PZ's protest as, among other things, a demand that the rules be clarified through a process of rational debate before they can be used(especially towards punitive action).

Or, in short: no secret laws allowed. That's true whether you're a church or our idiot president.

But you're implying that this sort of thing has legal precedent; can you be specific?

JP said: "While I think the kid didn't have criminal intent, PZ, in asking people to "do what it takes to get me some," is very arguably inciting people to commit burglary or other "real" crimes."

Perhaps it's just my innate ethical sense, but I assumed that it wouldn't really count if the crackers were actually stolen, i.e. taken before being given out to be eaten as part of the communion ceremony... and I took PZ's request as assuming this unspoken rule wouldn't be violated -- or perhaps even that he would pay for replacement crackers-and-blessings if that seems necessary in order to remove any real ethical issues from the situation. Perhaps PZ should have been clearer about this.

The game we are playing with these nincompoops, as I see it, is to violate their rules without violating any real rules -- until they stop shouting down the voices of moderation on both sides and trying to beat everyone into submission.

I'm inclined to agree that asking people to take crackers which were not yet theirs would be an incitement to a criminal act, however minor, and that would be sticking a toe across the line (if he offered to pay for the replacement cost, then it would be more like a toenail)... but I hadn't previously considered that PZ was actually urging this, so I'll have to give it some thought.

However, even if it turns out that PZ meant "go into a church and steal some recently-blessed communion wafers for me", this should not be used as an excuse to deflect attention away from the abominable behavior of the Church community with respect to Mr. Cook (who, as I've pointed out before, had intended to eat the cracker before leaving the church). I think we're agreed that death threats seriously outweigh cracker theft as far as which one should receive more attention and a harsher penalty.

JP said "Writing to PZ's university is completely within their freedom of expression." I wasn't arguing against it on the basis that they shouldn't be allowed to say what they think; I was arguing against it on the basis that it's a reprehensible misuse of that freedom -- but I wouldn't argue that this justifies censoring them for that misuse. I don't think anyone (on "my" side, anyway) has suggested this.

Agreeing that someone has the right to say what they think doesn't mean I can't object strenuously to what they say. "I object to what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." If people believe really stupid things, we need to know about it -- but that doesn't make them any less stupid.

JP said: "So, simply because they won't accept your position..." Wrong. Because they offer no rational arguments to support theirs.

I'd like to think that the majority of people can tell the difference between a rational argument and an irrational one, if both sides are given the chance to spell things out in detail. If not, then we are in trouble.

I'm not asking anybody to depend on my judgment; I'm just not willing to accept yours in its entirety.

We clearly do need a better venue for debate than blog-comments. A number of projects have been started toward this end, but the last time I checked they were still rather clunky and limited. ... and it looks like I'm going to be addressing this issue in more depth in my real response to you, so I think I'm done with this response...

a bit left off, 2008-07-17

after I typed this in response to JP, I realized it was more of a sidetrack than sticking to the point, so I took it out. --Woozle 15:52, 17 July 2008 (EDT)

JP said: "It seems to me the way to encourage rational debate is to engage in it ourselves, sans "spankings," even if some people on the other side don't seem ready to reciprocate..."

I regret the necessity for spankings, and would much rather pursue matters via another means. I am open to suggestions.

Side note, emphasizing the degree to which the Catholic side has violated the rules: Apparently Mr. Cook has been suspended, which seems to me not only insane given the sequence of events which led to the conflict, but also a violation of church-state separation (The University of Central Florida is state-run). That's not just breaking a social rule or a state rule or a federal law, it's against the Constitution -- unless they can show some non-religious way in which he misbehaved.